She does. Absolutely. I've never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I can't quite imagine what it must be like. It could be awesome and she could be like the cool, funny theatre aunt I kind of already have, but you need more of. Or she could be one of those angry, bitter, chain-smoking people I edge around at theatre gatherings for fear that she'll turn on me like a wounded cougar. Either way, she is, by pretty much any measure, one of the most successful dramatists working today. She had a play open on Broadway last season, one of very few* women to do so. She also had a successful run at Second Stage. She's also been a producer on several hit TV shows and won numerous awards. She's pretty much living the life many, many writers aspire to. And yet...there's this.
I feel similarly about her essay/Op-Ed as I did about her similar rant on the lack of productions for women playwrights. It's a right on, absolutely important observation and issue for discussion and I wonder how she gets the righteous anger up.
Theresa Rebeck writes plays with a strong narrative thrust that happen in realistic, naturalistic setting. It's been forgotten that that old, much-shredded and reviled review of the Humana Festival by Charles Isherwood was a good review for her play. Her plays get produced regularly, all over the place. In a way, I think, "What's she complaining about?"
But then I think, someone doesn't need to be affected by something to complain about an inequality. And there is a definite inequality when it comes to a certain kind of play, a certain kind of narrative structure, a certain form of storytelling. One of the things that I think is confusing Isaac is that in her article, Rebeck uses soft, safe language to describe what's going on in the literary management/artistic discussion circles of the world.
It's not "plot" that's missing, or even "structure" really. There's simply a certain kind of play that's on the outs. The "traditional" play: three-act structure, realistic set and situation, straightforward unfolding of plot tied to strong, clear character motivation. Realism, not naturalism.* This is, as she put it, "uncool." And theatres want "cool." Very, very much so.
When you boil anything down, in any good play, there's a plot. There's always a plot of some kind, really. But the cool thing now is to have as little a plot as you can get away with. If you write a play with "too much" plot or "too much" realism, especially if you're a young artist, theatres aren't so much interested. It's not the plot that's king now; it's the style. Literary departments are looking for the cool, new voice and that generally translates into something that's less dependent on characters pursuing a clear objective and is more about commenting on society and pop culture, adding layers of quirk and "theatricality," and doing things that the audience doesn't expect.
"Theatricality" is the buzzword for a lot of this. And it, usually, just means weird shit. Something rises unexpectedly out of the floor. Characters have odd physical traits or behave irrationally. I'm a big, big fan of Sarah Ruhl's work and I loved Eurydice, absolutely. That work is the pinnacle of what theatres are looking for right now. Somebody who saw it explain to me what the Three Stones were doing in it. Seriously. Beyond being a chorus, a stylistic element, what purpose did they serve? I think that's what Rebeck is talking about. When plot and story was king, it didn't really mean plays were less experimental or weird. Let's remember that Death of a Salesman is NOT a realistic play. But all of the elements served the plot. This is just less important now, if not considered a bad thing. I also really, really enjoyed Sheila Callaghan's That Pretty Pretty. But that's another play where style overwhelms plot or action. I'm not saying that that makes it a bad play, but it makes it a certain kind of play. The kind of play that gets buzz and gets noticed, in theatre circles.
Unless you're already Theresa Rebeck. Then you get to write your straightforward realistic plays and theatres snap them up. Because you're a proven commodity and because the audiences tend to respond to them. That's the other side of it. For most major theatres, the audiences respond better to the realistic plays; they're used to them. Theatres see it as selling out and they let the artists know that. If the alterkockers like it, it's gotta be bad. But if the alterkockers like it, well, they'll buy tickets for it, so we program it.
And if you're not an established writer...sorry, not really interested. Or we'll keep you hanging around on the periphery and encourage you to write a different kind of play, add more theatricality. Make it less "commercial." Yes, I'm talking about my own work. And, yes, you could say I was a bit bitter about it. And if you want to dismiss all of this because of that, the way I kind of want to dismiss what Rebeck is writing about because she's successful, go right ahead. But I do think it's true. There is a style that's popular now. It may not be popular forever, but it is now. And I know I've wrestled with how that affects my work. Because it's a very different style than I work in. So do I keep doing what I'm doing and know that it will mean I get passed over for opportunities? Or do I try to change what I'm doing, maybe just a little, so it appeals to the gatekeepers? Or do I try to opt out of the system altogether?
*If not the only. My memory is hazy.
* Although these words are often used interchangably, I think of them as different styles. A Streetcar Named Desire and Burn This are realistic plays. The Thugs by Adam Bock I consider a naturalistic play. Feel free to disagree.